‘Hollywood’ Review: Ryan Murphy’s Golden Age Tinseltown Offers An Immersive Glance Into The Machine

Ryan Murphy’s newest chronicle passionately renders Hollywood’s golden age, but its idealist attempt to rewrite the narrative isn’t without flaw.

Netflix.

In the post-war world, America is flying high from the Allied victory, and Hollywood, appropriately, is booming. Yet, even the nation’s economic success can’t possibly begin to mask the social issues that still persist on home soil, which (naturally) permeate into an industry that is not only one of the most lucrative, but also the one rife with underlying agenda — responsible for the global projection of America’s most idealized self-image.

Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is more than aware of this. The television mogul (best known for GleeAmerican Horror Story, and co.) has set his sights on the starry-eyed town that so often disposes of the dreamers within it — and in doing so has created an electrifying time capsule with a noticeably contemporary twist. Hollywood follows the interwoven stories of these dreamers, but is particularly interested in the personalized deterrents that come with the territory of post-war American society, and the lengths it takes to surpass them.

Analyzing the unwritten caste system of American sociality, sexuality as both tool and hindrance, and the authoritarian rule of money over humanity, Murphy’s Hollywood grasps the clay of American society in its hands and molds it to its liking. 

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Netflix

A seven-part series, Hollywood tackles the biases of the film industry largely through its ensemble cast, which blends fictional characters and real-life representations alike, each symbolic in their own right. We meet Jack Castello (David Corenswet), an army veteran looking to make it big; Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay Black man aspiring to be a screenwriter; Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), a closeted actor trying to break through; Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), a half-Asian (but white-passing) director, wishing to expand the diversity in filmmaking; and Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a Black woman struggling to break out of the caricatured roles that she always seems to be handed.

With such a star-studded ensemble cast running the show, Hollywood’s performances, and the compelling metanarratives at their foundation, are inevitably the production’s main sustenance. Each performance bursts with Golden Age enthusiasm and a starry-eyed ambition that diffuses perfectly into the plot, with standout performances including Patti LuPone’s Avis Amberg, the wife of studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), as she balances a breadth of emotions as her goals and mindsets change, and Jim Parsons’ role as Henry Willson is handled expertly in its complexity — functioning as both blatant opposition and comic relief — though this duality of his character can often feel uncomfortable.

Parsons plays the character very well, but the show’s later attempt at his redemption feels, frankly, misguided. Pope’s Archie Coleman, though he has some truly poignant moments, slips into occasional bouts of overacting. And, despite occupying the show’s central role, Corenswet falls much behind his peers. While the bulk of his performance as a young actor yearning for fame is largely well-captured, his more emotional moments feel slightly detached from any authenticity — as though Corenswet is hanging in the balance between himself and his role.

In stark contrast to some of the performances, though, the sheer immersion of Murphy’s Golden Age Tinseltown leaves very little to be desired. Though the color palettes vary, they all share a delicate curation of both the vibrance of Hollywood’s heyday and the bleakness of its deep-set realities. Production designer Matthew Flood Ferguson showcases some magnificent work in building exquisite settings that feel rich — not singularly in the monetary sense, but visually as well, feeling like a passionate ode to the lavish essence of the era. The expert costuming, designed by Sarah Evelyn and Lou Eyrich, is equally striking in its intricacy. Whether it’s casual wear, work uniforms, power suits, glamorous Oscar gowns, or satin robes cuffed with ostrich feathers, the fashion in Hollywood is not simply appropriate for its setting and era, but exceptional in its own right. The musical score is scatty, snappy, and swingin’ — involving you into its very rhythm — and with all the overhead shots, dramatic pans, and mood lighting in full bounty, the cinematography is equally engulfing, throwing you into Hollywood‘s visual spell and complementing the magnitude of the story it tells. 

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Netflix

“I want to take the story of Hollywood and rewrite it.”

In tackling the intersection of sex, money, and politics, Hollywood throws a lot of themes into its mix, as social issues and inequity pervade essentially every encounter. With a mere seven-episode narrative arch, juggling such themes seem to have led to a blatancy in their presentation, and even a blissful idealization of their solutions. This leaves the final act feeling a bit blown through and oversimplified in relation to the gravity of the issues it attempts to resolve. (It’s here that the show’s rewritten idealism really comes to the fore, and the results are mixed, to say the least.) While effective in displaying the social structure of post-war America and its effect on the citizens and dreamers within it, such strategies also largely reduce the depth of those characters to their struggles and persecutions. And while it does feel purposeful, allowing the story to come to fruition in only seven episodes, characters being left as mildly archetypal is invariably disappointing — particularly when the biases and prejudices against them form the entire show’s narrative center.

Hollywood successfully depicts the fiery nature of fighting the force of facade, but ultimately allows its characters nothing more. If the show extends another season (as is rumored) we may well be allowed to discover much more of this story — the truth of the personas within it. As it is, however, the success of Hollywood lies instead in its incredibly immersive glance into the Tinseltown machine; the drive to change how it operates is, alone, worth the watch.

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